With T Bone Burnett, you never know. He might be referring to the song of that name off his current LP, The Talking Animals, or maybe to the wild truth in general. We talked just before his departure for Ireland to start production on Elvis Costello's first Warner Bros. album. This will mark Elvis and T Bone's third studio collaboration, counting the impromptu C&W Coward Brothers and the heralded King Of America LP. Currently awaiting release is Sam Phillips' (aka Leslie Phillips) debut as an "acid pop" singer on Virgin Records. T Bone has also just finished work on Kris Kristofferson's new album, which has yet to be released due to the political nature of the material, and an LP is in the works with blues legend Willie Dixon for Bug Publishing's label on Capitol.
T Bone is uncomfortable "talking music," opting instead to draw oblique political and social analogies to his music. Our first session was mired in reluctance and moody introspection. However — bingo! — we struck paydirt the next time around as T Bone described his music in terms of dim, fascinatingly paranoid views of society in decay.
Finally, we coerced the maker of such soul-o and solo classics as Truth Decay, Trap Door, Proof Through The Night and The Dot Country Album to comment Freudian-style on his work and a few of his famous colleagues (including Bob Dylan). These descriptions (few of them serious) typify T Bone Burnett's odd sense of humor.
What made you change your mind about doing this interview?
I wanna talk about the wild truth. I figured that since I haven't been doing any interviews, this is something that I can do that is palatable. Most of the stuff, I really can't do. They want me to go on the Johnny Letterman Show. But I can't do any of that.
Do you detach yourself from the promotion process?
I try to, because if you pay too much attention to it, it gets too debilitating. You want everyone to like you. But it stands to reason that everybody isn't going to like you.
You definitely have your fans, both fellow artists and listeners. A lot of the rest probably perceive you as a critic's darling.
I got stuck early on with the reputation of being a moralist. But people make judgments all the time about what they think is right and wrong. That's what a moralist is. I think — and this may be my paranoia or fear — that there are times when people want to take a hard look at things, and times when they don't. This is one of those times when people don't want to take a hard look at things at all.
So far, all your recorded work has been within an era in America where people don't seem to want to take a hard look at issues.
I started solo recording about the same time Reagan started his whitewashing. We've sort of had parallel careers.
Did you ever think that the election of Ronald Reagan would make rock n roll more rebellious?
No, I never thought that.
Well, I did, and I guess you were right. It didn't. In fact, we don't hear a lot of protest music these days.
I'm not writing Sixties protest music, but I am writing songs saying that this civilization is crumbling. Usually, people ignore me. I don't feel like a critic's darling at all.
Yet what about being viewed as a moralist?
I think people look for easy tags. There has been a trend for a long time towards using things like market research, causing all sorts of market fragmentation.
So you do somewhat understand radio and the media.
I just don't think it's a good idea for any society to become fragmented. Yet I think this society has become fragmented. Fragmentation puts up walls between people and furthers an evil trend.
Let me be the devil's advocate here. There are different cultures and points of view that relate directly to the things that folks buy and the music that they listen to. Shouldn't there be an easy way to program music or market products that effectively reach a given audience or consumer group?
That's the case now, but it wasn't the case when I was growing up. And I'm glad it wasn't. We now have a ghetto mentality — a rich white ghetto over here, a poor black one over here and a riotous Chicano ghetto over there. It's fragmentation. Radio aside, what fragmentation does is makes us increasingly afraid. Look at all these conservatives. You can see the demagoguery in someone like Orrin Hatch when he tries to control, sway, move and motivate people out of fear of what he fears, be it communism or whatever. What's happening in this society is that we're running away from each other out of fear. And that just breeds more fear. It's leading to a very unhealthy state, with leaders at the top telling us we are healthy while people starve in the streets.
Does the song "The Wild Truth" have anything to do with all of this?
I think that's exactly what the song's all about. Do you know that ten years ago there were over three hundred communication companies and networks in the United States? Right now there are just over twenty. That's who controls radio, television and newspapers. Everything is getting bought up. Ronald Reagan used to be a spokesman for General Electric. General Electric is now the biggest defense contractor in the United States. NBC was doing an investigation into wasteful defense spending. General Electric bought NBC. That investigation was then immediately shut down. Here we have a case of the government — the industrial/military complex — running the press. We're very close to absolute tyranny where we no longer have freedom of the press. I feel that the press is absolutely in the most conservative phase it's ever been in. And I want to stress that I'm not a liberal.
I recently heard an arch-conservative on the radio complaining bitterly about the liberal press.
That's demagoguery in a nutshell. The press has never been so conservative in my lifetime. This "liberal press" business doesn't wash. It's a good thing to say to alarm people and undermine the credibility of the press. But who do you think owns the press? Do you really think liberals own it? Ninety percent of it is owned and controlled by conservatives. However there are a few token liberal coke-head press people. This is why I wanted to talk to you. I really wanted to address all of this and this seemed like a good forum.
Then why do you term the truth as "wild"?
Because I wasn't talking about the mundane truth, like the sky being blue. I was talking about the wild truth, like the sky is red. I wasn't talking about the mundane truth like there being stars in the sky. I was talking about the wild truth, like the skies are going to roll down like a scroll. This place we live, this dimension we live in — whatever it is — is not at all as we perceive it. It's something much wilder than anything we perceive as being wild.
So where does the artist enter in? Is it enough to merely put forth a view of the world or hold a mirror up to the inconsistencies or the injustices?
No, I don't think it's enough. You can put forth a view of the world and say it's a horrible, awful place. Hopefully, an artist should and can give a point of view that inspires. I feel we're increasingly living in a completely imaginary world. During the early days at Walt Disney's EPCOT, there was a talking robot of Thomas Jefferson. He was sitting behind his desk framing the Declaration of Independence. So he stands up from behind the desk and says, "It's time for America to start thinking more positively about itself." Now here's the Disney people putting words in Thomas Jefferson's mouth! That's a terrible thing to do! I wouldn't be surprised to see one of those characters like Jerry Falwell erect a Bible amusement park where there's a robot of Jesus who stands up and says something like, "Today in America, the secular humanists are trying to overrun the schools. So Ollie North needs to be freed from prison." People would then accept that, in one sense, as Jesus' words. You see what I mean? This is what media tends to do. They are representing life to us in that same way as putting words and ideas into the mouth of a talking head of Jesus at Bibleland saying, "Free Oliver North." I know it's slightly futuristic — by about twelve minutes. Do I sound like a crackpot?
I don't know. I guess that's for our readers to judge. Relating all of this to the state of music and radio, isn't it encouraging that the number one band in America is U2, a band that is complex both in its spirit and philosophy and in its musical direction?
U2 is number one in some ways, but remember that Bon Jovi sold more records.
Yet isn't it amazing that a U2 or T Bone Burnett can make records that are experimental in nature, yet reach a mainstream audience that we constantly sell short?
I feel a lot of the popularity U2 enjoyed on their last record was the same popularity Bruce Springsteen enjoyed with Born In The USA. He sort of became the thing of the moment. Bruce Springsteen probably has thousands and thousands of fans who don't know much about him at all, but just want to be there. A lot of those people might not care much about him as a man or his work as a writer. Yet, at the same time, a huge number of people care about life. I think these are the
people who are consistently ignored by the media. I'm frequently accused in the press of being cynical. And I don't think I am at all. I think people who program television for the lowest common denominator are the cynical ones. I don't think I'm cynical. I care about life. I also think life is hard. It's a rugged uphill journey. But it's eminently worth living.
We often think, when listening to music, how tough it must be to be a kid these days.
That's what I think. But you know, I've noticed something about kids. Most children, if you tell them there's a better way, will try it, because they want their lives to be better. And that goes for everyone else. Most people would like their lives to be better than they currently are. Right now, because we live in a materialistic society, we're told the way to make our lives better is by having more money. Then people make more money and find that it's not true. There are ways to have a better life that you can try everyday. That's what I'm talking about in my songs. And that's what that song, "The Wild Truth" is about. That's what this whole record is about.
I have to ask you about a line in the song, "Euromad." I'm referring to the line, "Were it not for Mr. Gordon and his fine distillery." That line is unlike you, considering what a wimpy drinker you are.
(laughs) I wasn't one on that trip.
Gin is rough stuff.
It is. It's blues juice, you know? I grew up on it. I wasn't always a wimpy drinker. I just recently became that over time. Drinking is like exercise. You can build up your muscles by lifting weights. If you drink for a couple of weeks straight, you become a heroic drinker.
Didn't you start your musical career very young, not as a musician but actually as a producer?
I was a musician, but I started producing at about age sixteen. I realized very early on that I wasn't cut out to be Elvis Presley.
Most people expect a producer to be a seasoned and experienced traffic director at a session.
It is sort of like that, actually.
But as a youngster, you produced singers like Delbert McClinton. What makes a young person become a producer, as opposed to strapping on a guitar and going for the girls?
I was fascinated by the whole process of the studio. At the time, it was 1965, the beginning of the technological explosion. I mean, this was the very beginning of rock n roll starting with four tracks. You could really play with things. You could turn tape around and cut it and do tricks. We used to play with things a lot. It was terrific good fun to put one sound against another and make this crazy thing. I started doing that, and I loved it! I then chose it as a life. I realized I was too insecure to go onstage.
I remember seeing you with the Alpha Band. You didn't seem that withdrawn or timid to me.
Oh, but I was! Those tours were torture. They still are. It's torture for me to go onstage. But I got better when I went out solo for a year. I finally learned what it's about and I began to enjoy it. In order for me to do it again, I'd probably have to get acclimated. It's hard to put a record out and then perform it live. I saw a study a few years ago that stated that one of the most stressful things a person can do is to be a teacher, public speaker or a musician. It talked about how stressful it is to get up in front of your peers and be judged. You see, I just don't have that "thing," that rock star "thing" inside me.
What else are you excited about?
Sam Phillip's new record is really wonderful. You can quote me as saying that this is my best work as a producer.
Better than Los Lobos?
As a producer, by far, yes. I think she's about the best writer to come around since Elvis Costello. That's what I think. You can call it acid pop, okay?
Give us a hint as to how Elvis Costello's record is going to sound.
It's going to be wonderful. Elvis has written some really great songs. The album is not going to be anything like King Of America. Remember how he used to write hip pop songs? They sounded like classic pop songs.
Like "Oliver's Army'?
Yeah, like that stuff. This record will be a lot like that. These songs aren't as vague as his recent stuff. His writing is getting more concise again, but it's got a depth that he's never had before. Very interesting songs. I'm very excited about working on that record. Also, I'm getting very inspired about music. I've found some old musk that's inspired me enormously.
What kind of music is that?
I'm not gonna say. But I've found some musk that has inspired me again, and I've started writing again. I'll probably do another record next fall. I'm glad to be worked up about something again. It's that feeling, that crazy feeling. Living in Hollywood, all events conspire to make you think about everything you shouldn't think about, and nothing encourages you to think about what you should be thinking about.
So why do you live in Hollywood?
I don't. I've been here and I'm getting out as soon as I can. I've been looking at Virginia. It's beautiful there. Meanwhile, I'll be in Ireland for three months working on Elvis' record. We're gonna work hard to make a good record.